St. Augustine on, “When does life begin?”

Was St. Augustine a time traveler? Maybe. How else do explain him asking “Just when does human life begin to exist in the womb?” some 1,600 years ago? Or maybe great minds are always consumed with deep matters.

Augustine addresses the question at the beginning of his discussion of the resurrection in Faith, Hope, and Charity (The Enchiridion). He only spends one paragraph on the subject-24.86-but how remarkable to hear one of the great doctors of the church speak so explicitly to contemporary ethical dilemmas.

Without the aid of science and knowledge so readily available to us, Augustine does not please the pro-life constituency by simply answering the question “at conception.” Nevertheless, he struggles his way in that direction.

Just when does human life begin? Augustine begins with agnosticism, “I do not know whether man can find the answer at all.” Without ultrasound, x-ray, and microscopes, his uncertainty is justifiable. Yet he reasons toward an answer…

What of stillborn infants? A little more grotesquely, what about infants who die in the womb and are not delivered? Doctors in Augustine’s day were apparently able to perform surgery to remove such infants from the womb. Following Augustine’s reasoning- there is a way to tell infants in the womb have perished; there is a way to remove those bodies so they do not cause harm to the mother. From this, it is apparent to Augustine that life does not begin at birth. It is “all too rash presumption” to deny such infants were not alive yet.

If not at birth, when does life begin? “Certainly, once a man begins to live, from that moment also it is possible for him to die.” In a rather backwards manner, Augustine arrives at a position many pro-lifers do. Life begins when death is possible. Separately, the human egg and sperm certainly live, but neither will ever live to become a human on their own. Together, human egg and sperm will only grow and live into one thing: another human. To end the existence of a human egg fertilize with human sperm is death. Where there is death, there must have been life.